The script was invented to solve issues of communication, commerce and government. The alphabet was invented to resolve residual problems of writing and conquer time. The parchment emerged to solve the problems left over by other writing supports. The bound book responded to issues no previous form could address with similar success. The printing press developed to meet the needs of an evolving culture and to fill the vacuum left by an insufficient scribal community.
Martin Luther wrote that ‘printing was God’s highest act of grace’, perhaps the single most progressive statement coming from a leader immersed in the conservative universe of the manuscript book. For Luther to say that the latest high tech of Gutenberg’s machine was God’s ultimate gift to mankind is like Billy Graham saying that the AI will pave the way to salvation. What Luther meant was that printing was better because it did things better and solved the pressing issues of the time – biblical illiteracy, misguided devotion, foolish worship, ignorance – more quickly and more efficiently.
It’s about issues, not pleasure. Problems, not affections. The means serve the purpose, not the other way around. Books are in the service of knowledge, imagination, creativity and art, and exist as long as they promote these aims. They have no other purpose. They certainly should not be there just for the sake of being there.
And so we get to our cultural skirmishes between the traditional book and the emerging and disruptive forms and supports, like the ebook, the e-reader, the webpage and the digital text. People used to reading physical books are on balance more likely to condemn and resist new supports than those for whom reading physical books is not as emotional an activity. Those who don’t tend to read physical books are on balance more likely to misrepresent and ignore the protests of the former group. Both are missing the point.